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The best films of 2011

Monitor film critic, Peter Rainer, remembers the hundreds of movies he watched in 2011, and highlights his favorites ... and some he thought were overrated.

By Peter Rainer / December 24, 2011

Brad Pitt (l.) and Jonah Hill are shown in a scene from "Moneyball." The film was nominated for a Golden Globe for best picture drama. It is one of many films Monitor film critic, Peter Rainer, reviewed this year.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures-Sony/AP

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I saw about 300 movies in 2011. Hold your applause please. No matter how dismal the movies may sometimes have seemed – "The Hangover: Part II" anyone? "Transformers 508"? – I ended up, as always, with just enough goodies to justify all that time in the dark. (Let's see, 300 films times 100 minutes per movie....)

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Before I take the high road, a few thoughts, crammed with caveats and cavils, on the past 12 months.

The "serious picture" niche, until this year, had mostly been filled with films about 9/11 and the Iraq war. But because most of those films ("In the Valley of Elah," "Stop-Loss," etc.) were commercial and critical flops, that particular trend, especially in the nondocumentary arena, is just about over.

Taking its place is a kind post-9/11 metaphysical mumbo-jumbo gumbo. Instead of addressing global terrors directly, we have movies that are charged with an often otherworldly dread. "Melancholia," which admittedly has a visually ravishing prologue, splices a nuptials-gone-wrong story line into a high-art disaster movie scenario. A giant planet named Melancholia is heading straight for Earth, and it even has Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" as its theme song!

In "Take Shelter," a much better movie, Michael Shannon plays an ordinary man increasingly overtaken by visions of apocalyptic storms. His fears are singular and yet they connect with our larger anxieties about terrorism, the economy – everything.

Even a movie as specific in its scare-mongering as "Contagion" moves away from the headlines and turns apocalyptic (and, in my view, borderline exploitative, using our germ-warfare fears as grist for high-toned sci-fi pulp).

Movies like "The Adjustment Bureau," "In Time," and especially "Source Code" were perhaps the most indicative and touching examples of our desire to make sense of post-9/11 dread. None of these fantasias were any great shakes as movies but, in varying ways, they were all about our need to rewind reality – to literally stop the clock – and make it all turn out right this time. ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" dealt with 9/11 trauma head-on, with decidedly mixed results.)

By comparison, films dealing with actual historical personages often seemed mundane, or, as in the case of "The Ides of March," which dealt with thinly disguised actual personages, naive. (Who knew politics could be a dirty business?) Despite advance word, "J. Edgar" didn't delve deeply into the FBI director's nefariousness or hidden sex life, leaving us in limbo. The Margaret Thatcher biopic "The Iron Lady" (which opens Dec. 30) has pitch-perfect Meryl Streep mummified by her makeup and the film's political toothlessness. At least "The Help," which was unfairly rapped for portraying the civil rights struggle through the eyes of a white Southern woman, knew enough to leaven its social consciousness with sass.

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